Monday, November 28, 2011

Cheese-um: "Chisum" (1970)

It is amazing that John Wayne is so popular so many years after his death. No one has ever been able to duplicate the man's screen presence, despite Clint Eastwood's best efforts. John Wayne was beloved, an underrated actor, an even more underrated film director, and a western film icon. Sadly, for every "McLintock!" or "Red River," there is a "The Conqueror," or this film.

The Duke is John Chisum, one of those impossibly rich ranch owners who finds himself the target of the villainous Forrest Tucker. Tucker is buying up the local town for no real reason. Enter some of the way too many characters when none other than Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett get involved with the proceedings. Both compete for Chisum's overly plain niece. The rest of the film consists of too many ambushes and horse chases, as Tucker and Wayne go back and forth until the inevitable violent conclusion.

At one time, this type of western worked- about twenty years before this fossil was released. McLaglen virtually draws pictures on the screen to illustrate the kind of simplistic plot my gerbil could figure out, if I had a gerbil. The scenery is beautiful and Ben Johnson is worth a quite a few laughs as Chisum's muttering-under-his-breath sidekick.

The most embarrassing aspect of the film is the treatment of real life characters Billy the Kid, Billy's mentor Tunstall, and Pat Garrett. Garrett ends the film as a hen pecked sheriff with no indication that he would one day kill William Bonney. Tunstall, the European anti-gun rancher who took Bonney and others in, then was gunned down, is a little irritating here. This is the west, he does not carry a gun, so he comes off as slightly feminine and completely stupid.

Billy the Kid wasn't a cold blooded killer, he apparently succumbed to some sort of 1870's peer pressure, explaining his past crimes to running with the wrong crowd. After these scenes, I kept expecting Father Flanagan to step out from behind a cactus and box Billy on the ear. Tucker and Wayne keep likening their competition to a chess match, and this film is that exciting.

The film is badly paced, as McLaglen relies to heavily on his cast's goodwill to carry a story that has been done (better) a hundred times before.

This is not as bad as "The Conqueror," but I did not expect this level of ineptitude from a normally strong cast and crew. "Chisum" should have stayed back on the ranch. A few positives keep this at average, but geez. (* * *) out of five stars.